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My Father’s Jewish Mormon Funeral

We were living in Dublin when the first emergency phone call came in. My father, then 80, was heading into surgery in Baltimore. They ended up removing a lung and reaming out important arteries full of cancer. In my mind’s eye I saw the rogue cells that would then pump through his body and lodge wherever they may. That’s exactly what happened. A year later, a cancerous tumor in his brain dislodged and hemorrhaged. We had been living in Utah for 10 months when the second emergency phone call came in. At Johns Hopkins Hospital, we made the decision to remove life support.

What I knew of my father played in my mind. His father was a Russian-Jewish immigrant from Kamenka, Cherkasy, Ukraine, who arrived in Baltimore in 1914 at the age of 17. He was satisfied to become a bait fisherman with a little shop. My father started elementary school speaking only Yiddish, an embarrassment to him. He was an only child and a stellar student. Eventually, he earned a doctoral degree from Johns Hopkins and began teaching there.

As World War II was ending, as a Lt. Colonel in the army, he was drafted into Operation Paperclip and sent to Germany to recruit German rocket scientists for the U.S. space program. His success pivoted on a binder of blank paper. He would sit across from a candidate and ask him his name. The scientist would tell him, and my father would peruse an imaginary list. “Oh, you must not be important. You are not on my list.”

If the candidate were prideful, he would then defend his importance and outline his contribution to the German war effort as my father took notes. If the candidate was still reticent to throw in his lot with the Americans, my father would look at his watch and tell him the Russians were on their way and would be there in a couple of hours. That would usually do the trick. It wasn’t too many years later that my father was working in the space program with some of these men.

My father taught at Johns Hopkins until I was 8, and then we moved to California and Applied Physics Laboratory. Now he was back in Maryland after retirement and a bitter divorce.

It was no surprise that my rocket scientist father had made meticulous arrangements for his own funeral. But it was a surprise that my father the atheist had arranged for a fairly religious Jewish funeral.

At the funeral home we discovered my father had chosen a very simple pine box as a casket. A step up from a plain shroud. The funeral home was very happy to show us upgrades. Otherwise, we honored my father’s choices.

That the funeral home incorporated Jerusalem stone into its décor touched us. It was the same stone that graced our house just outside Jerusalem, where we had lived so many years. An attendant pinned a black ribbon to my dress and began to recite the Hebrew prayer v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y. He didn’t realize I had lived in Israel 8 years. I repeated the prayer very quickly.

Against tradition, there was a viewing. I don’t like viewings, but this one was special. My father in white tallit and kippah, very close to Mormon temple clothing, which again, looks like ancient Israelite temple clothing. In the small chapel the rabbi spoke briefly, then an uncle praised my father’s intellect, humility, and charity. My husband was to be the closing speaker.

Somehow, my Jewish extended family views my husband as a clergyman. By trade he has been a contractor and international businessman, but in Mormonism, all worthy males over 12 may be ordained to our lay priesthood. Mormons define “priesthood” as the power and authority to act in God’s name. Often, my husband is invited to dedicate graves for my extended family. This time, he was only invited to speak, but my blood ran cold when he stood up and approached the podium with his arm straight down at his side, carrying a Book of Mormon.

You can’t just leap up and beg someone to reconsider when something like this happens. The mood had been reverent and somber and inspiring. All that was surely about to change. I found brief respite in the fact that there are Isaiah chapters in the Book of Mormon.

But my husband didn’t read from them. Instead, he read from the final book of the scripture, some verses on charity from a prophet named Moroni. Christ is everywhere in those scriptures, but so is God, and somehow, my husband’s selective rendition sounded pretty Jewish.

I subtly glanced around the room. Tears were flowing and heads were nodding. It was as if the congregants couldn’t quite identify the scriptures, but they sounded familiar, like they were from somewhere in the tanakh, and comforting. All ended well, and we headed to the Jewish cemetery, and then to the best Jewish deli on earth (as any Jewish deli would seem to me; I’m mostly starving in Utah).

I once said to my father that he was such a good man, he would surely go to heaven. He said that wasn’t fair, since he was an atheist. If he were right, I could not be surprised, because I would cease to exist at death. If I were right, then he would be surprised, because he would continue to live eternally. I can’t wait to see him again.

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